Monday 2 March 2020

Still in fine form: Meyerbeer's Le prophète returns to the Deutsche Oper, Berlin with Gregory Kunde back in the title role

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Giacomo Meyerbeer Le prophète; Gregory Kunde, Clémentine Margaine, Elena Tsallagova, Seth Carrico, Derek Welton, dir: Olivier Py, cond: Enrique Mazzola; Deutsche Oper Berlin
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 February 2020 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Olivier Py's thoughtfully dramatic production returns to Berlin with the original cast in fine form

Giacomo Meyerbeer was very much a European; German-born, Jewish, he wrote Italian operas in Italy, French operas in French and German opera in Germany (incidentally an unfulfilled ambition of the young Richard Wagner). So it is perhaps fitting that much of the recent Meyerbeer revival is occurring in Germany, not withstanding the return of Les Huguenots to the Paris Opera after a gap of some 30 years [see my review]. The Deutsche Oper, Berlin has been exploring Meyerbeer's French operas and during February and March 2020 revived three of them, stagings of Le prophète and Les Huguenots, and concert performances of Dinorah, to create a mini-Meyerbeer festival.

Tony Cooper caught Olivier Py's production of Le prophète at the Deutsche Opera when it was new in 2017 [see Tony's review], and we saw the second cast in 2018 but that occasion was marred by flooding which rendered the theatre's hydraulic system inoperable to the opera was given in a simplified staging [see my review]. So it was with great interest that we caught Meyerbeer's Le prophète at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin on Saturday 29 February 2020 with the original conductor, Enrique Mazzola, and many of the first cast returning to their roles including Gregory Kunde as Jean de Leyde, Clémentine Margaine as Fidès, Elena Tsallagova as Berthe, Seth Carrico as Oberthal, Derek Welton as Zaccarias,  plus Gideon Poppe as Jonas and Thomas Lehman as Mathisen.

Le prophète is French Grand Opera to the max. We know that operas did not always have to be in five acts, have a ballet in act three and have be on a huge scale, but Meyerbeer and librettists Eugene Scribe and Emile Deschamps used the full forces available at the Paris Opera. Though it is worth bearing in mind that the work was not written for the gargantuan Palais Garnier (which was not built until the 1870s) but for the more modestly sized Salle Pelletier (the Opera Comique is now on the site).

Whilst Meyerbeer had successfully used religious discord as a backdrop in opera in 1836 for Les Huguenots, Le prophète (which premiered in 1849) is unusual in being so focused. There is no sub-plot, no comic sidelines, and the work continued themes from Fromenthal Halevy's La Juive (premiered 1835, see my review of the Opera Vlaanderen production) which placed a father/daughter relationship at its centre, minimising the love interest. Le prophète follows suit, placing Jean de Leyde (Gregory Kunde) and his mother Fidès (Clémentine Margaine) at the centre.

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Gregory Kunde - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Gregory Kunde - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Ostensibly the opera is about the Anabaptist take over of Munster in the 1530s (a bloody episode also treated by Alexander Goehr in his opera Behold the Sun, which premiered at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 1985), but Meyerbeer (a Jew all his life) was using the past as a mirror of the present.

Olivier Py's production, with designs by Pierre-Andre Waltz, used a dystopian cityscape as a background to a tale of warring overlords. Meyerbeer does not seem to have been interested specifically in the religious issues, but in politics, power and morality, the issues at the centre of the opera and subjects which can resonate in many settings. Py did not try to reconstruct the Grand Opera form, nor did he substantially subvert it, though he was less interested in display in moments like the Act Three coronation scene than the original production would have been.

It is a long opera, a big sing for both Gregory Kunde as Jean and Clémentine Margaine as his mother. And the roles require more than just Wagnerian stamina, Meyerbeer was born a year before Rossini and his music remains wedded to that era, singers must combine stamina with vocal flexibility.

Despite including the title role of Verdi's Otello in his current repertory [he is one of the few singers to have counted the title roles of both Rossini and Verdi's Otello in his repertoire], Gregory Kunde retains a striking vocal pliability, singing with a finely focused line and seemingly tireless resources. His Jean was a naive dupe, he believed and it was only when presented with the moral force of his mother, in the climactic final scene, that he understood.

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Gregory Kunde - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Gregory Kunde - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Kunde brought superb commitment to his Act Two solo as well as a sense of mysticism, inspiring his troops to battle, and his confusion and complicity in the coronation scene was superb when he is forced (here at gunpoint) to deny his mother. But it was the long scene with Clémentine Margaine's Fidès in Act Five that crowned a slow-burn performance. Always heroic, this Jean elicited sympathy and a Samson-like (as in Saint-Saens' opera) power.

Clémentine Margaine brought a similar combination of focus and intensity to the role of Fidès, along with brilliant agility such as moments like her Act Four cabaletta. Margaine showed how the character grew from troubled mother in her moving Act One prayer, to superb moral authority and a terrific force (in her Act Five scene). It is tempting to cut Le prophète, particularly the last act when singers are reaching their end, but we got a substantial version which allowed the work's slow-burn power to build, solo scene for Fidès then duet with Jean and then the final trio with Berthe.

The opera is, frankly, less interested in Berthe but Elena Tsallagova sparkled brilliantly (the role is the near obligatory coloratura soprano), but she made the roulades seem more than decorative in the second half when Berthe is bent on revenge on the Prophet (whom she does not realise is her fiancé Jean).

Seth Carico was the 'evil' Oberthal, a curiously underwritten role but Carico brought immense authority to it, and a nice sense of line. More important, and more sinister, were the three Anabaptists, Derek Welton, Gideon Poppe, Thomas Lehman. Meyerbeer uses their repeated intonation of this invented Anabaptist hymn to devastating effect and the three singers built on this, gradually revealing their character, notably their total venality! Both groups, Oberthal's men and the Anabaptists were dressed alike making Olivier Py's view of them clear.

The production has its oddities, an angel with cardboard wings intended, perhaps, to suggest the real religious fervour, the use of slogans drawn on cardboard. But overall the result told the story and was true to the music and brought out the underlying themes.

As with WNO's recent production of Verdi's Les Vepres Siciliennes, I am not convinced of the viability of repurposing the original ballet music to serious intent. Despite Olivier Py's good intentions (he was choreographer) a mismatch between dramaturgy and the style of Meyerbeer's music was inevitable.

Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Clémentine Margaine - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
Meyerbeer: Le prophète - Clémentine Margaine - Deutsche Oper, Berlin (Photo Bettina Stöß)
For me (and for D.), Le prophète remains the most satisfying of Meyerbeer's operas and the one whose neglect remains somewhat puzzling. Olivier Py's production at the Deutsche Opera still packs a powerful punch and it was terrific to be able to catch Gregory Kunde and Clémentine Margaine on terrific form surrounded by a very fine cast and a still crisp production. Given the moderately recent recording of the opera from Essen, I suppose a CD or DVD record is perhaps too much to hope for.

Giacomo Meyerbeer - Le prophète
Libretto by Eugene Scribe and Emile Deschamps
Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Conductor: Enrique Mazzola
Director, choreographer: Olivier Py
Design: Pierre-Andre Waltz
Lighting: Bertrand Killy

Jean de Leyde: Gregory Kunde
Fides: Clementine Margaine
Berthe: Elena Tsallagova
Zacharie: Derek Welton
Jonas: Gideon Poppe
Mathisen: Thomas Lehman
Count Oberthal: Seth Carico
Peasants: Jacquelyn Stucker, Anna Buslidze, Ya-Chung Huang, Byung Gil Kim
An Officer: Michael Kim
A Soldier: Ya-Chung Huang
Citizens: Ya-Chung Huang, Michael Kim, Samuel Dale Johnson, Timothy Newton
Children: Fanny Boning, Eunchee Lee

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